Maintenant, one of the possible translations of ‘Now’ in French, from main, hand and tenir, grasp or hold, fits perfectly into the world of sculpture, speaking as it does of the tactile underpinning the conceptual.
From September of last year through to the summer of 2019, I am exhibiting two extensive sets of work in a travelling museum show where the objective is to eliminate all idea of succession and of chronology. I advance the idea that the simple fact of tangibly showing the work in the chosen format, re-news it and brings it into the realm of the present.
‘Now’ is the key that allows the spectator to comprehend the project, to get a grip on it as one might say, to move from the tactile directly to the conceptual. I will attempt to explain why and how.
In the first room of the current show, a choice of elements from a collection of small-scale pieces is installed on a 30-metre glass shelf that runs along all of the four walls, fixed just below eye level. The elements that make up this first set are of a size, such that they can be seen and touched at one and the same time: they correspond in scale to the intimate, to parts of the human body, being made from gloves, plates, glasses, spoons and forks, others are simply modelled by hand. This installation runs into the next room where a second set of objects, at a larger scale – that of furniture (mobilier in French, that which is mobile, that can be moved around) is placed either at floor level on custom-made steel pallets or hung or stood up on or against the walls. The two sets of pieces together cover some 350 m².
The individual elements that make up the two dispositifs, fabricated over the last 40 years, could, in different circumstances, have been part of a classic retrospective exhibition, having at least a predisposition for a sculptural way of being.
However, the idea of turning my back on the future in order to consider the past seems contrary to the concept that lies behind my way of making, of seeing these things. I prefer the idea of facing the future and inventing a construction that brings what was made in the past up to the present, what Walter Benjamin called a constellation, a co-incidence in present time of different pasts.
Much of the work is modelled, the shaping visibly handmade: these pieces provide a way into a tactily-primed apprehension of what is shown, a reflexive invitation through the sense of touch to an encounter with informed visibility.
These pieces all belong to me and almost all of which, I made, constitute a collection, which travels to each venue and allows me to select of what is shown. According to the specific qualities of the spaces and the lighting I vary the choice. Only a small proportion of what is available is shown, the rest being kept in reserve.
Each exhibition – there have been six up to the present time – involves juxtaposing works using a system of montage, the individual pieces being set more or less closely together, the spaces in between linking them together into an anachronic narrative. Their positions within the installations are unrelated to the chronology of their fabrication. This relative proximity produces a quality that binds them together; I call this interprocessuality, where the empathic perception of the relationship between form and materials is transferred from one way of making to another. In this way, each addition to the collection is a potential tool for a deeper overall understanding of the dispositive.
As a whole the collection provides a matrix on which each individual show is predicated.
This corpus of work was produced in cycles, that, being unfinished, encapsulate a form of suspended time, their on-going seriality protecting them from closure and being classified as finished, done. The way the work is organised means that these cycles are woven together and as such, the imbricated suspension of their closure becomes generalised.
My role as author, owner and curator means that this set of work is not a closed archive but, as an open collection: destroying, reworking, remaking, augmenting, different parts is legitimately possible much like with Marcel Proust’s manuscripts, where he grafted on revisions by gluing strips of paper onto and into the original handwritten text. In this way the work as a whole, acquires a quality of plasticity can be remodelled permanently. Additions to unfinished series are regularly made and added to the corpus, which duly expands, swelling out from the inside and up to the present.
Here is an example of one specific kind of piece that makes up this collection and which typifies my approach. For many years I have been collecting different pieces of crockery made of white transparent-glazed Limoges porcelain. As we know, this very particular material is an artificial clay, developed at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to imitate the pieces imported to Europe from China and Japan. Its whiteness conspicuously predates the white of the White Cube and provides a chromatic reference.
Amongst what one finds second-hand and that pleases me the most is the coffee pot – a handle, a spout, a recipient between the two and a lid. The diversity of their forms tells the story of the shapes made from the 1740s onwards, providing a ready-made chronology of styles with editions, re-editions and changing decors to complicate matters. I find these objects most often with their tops missing, (but then decapitation is a tradition in France), the nobility of these elegant vessels disappears with their loss.
With a diamond-edge saw, I cut them into pieces, a kind of dissection – first of all removing the handle as one piece and then, similarly, the spout. Then I again cut the remaining part into a series of segments. Using different kinds of additives I mix with raw porcelain clay, I rebuild these elements into new assemblages, and then refire them at 1260°. At this temperature the different clays and glazes recombine together, vitrify and make new, coherent wholes in a range of whites, blacks and greys. These rebuilt versions of the readymade found forms of different eras are simultaneously fired in the same kiln and are exhibited together: they are as one at the same time all old, all second-hand but the way they are modified and reinvented brings them together into a common present.
They lose their original thingness, become debris, in order to mutate into a new form. Then becomes Now, with the tangible, tactile elements that the hand can hold, main-tenir.
For what is shown on the shelf, a whole variety of similar processes are brought to bear on other second hand or raw materials which are treated with similar disrespect: lead crystal vases are cut down one side and open up like flowers, white glass plates roll themselves up like table napkins when they are heated in the glass kiln, spoons and forks are hammered flat, sheets of steel cut from the lids of gas cookers are re enamelled, leather gloves unstitched: processes cross over, hybridize, each suggesting a further complementary operation on an analogous set of objects. This is part of an overall project that I call, tongue in cheek, domestic violence. Removing a category of unexceptional, industrially made, utilitarian objects from circulation amongst those which have become second-hand, rendering them dysfunctional in order to reinvent them as things, to be part of part of a coherent collection that speaks of an on-going present.
Sourced from different pasts, their story stops short in order to be rolled out as a new narrative in the space of Now.
French lacks a pair of tenses, the present perfect and the present perfect continuous. One can conjugate ‘to make’ in different ways, moving from relative pasts: had been making, had made, made, make, am making, and then the two significant tenses as far as this essay is concerned – to have made and to have been making. The present perfect continuous describes actions that happened in the past, which continue and which can extend into the future.
I have been making these things for 40 years. They roll out from the past with sufficient impetus to pass the benchmark of Now and to reach out into the future.
Sculpture is what the history of sculpture is the history of, an allegory, a collection of ongoing ontogenetic practises that we use as sculptors, reinventing the processes of the past to move into the future.
I finish with a tale of touch, which revolves around an international story of handles, handles removed from selected French Limoges coffee pots, cut away from the matrix of the original vessels.
One must imagine the clay original in the 1950s say, the creation of a clay hand-made handle from which the slip-casting mould was made, and subsequent coffee pots edited. The pot would have been sold, treasured and used periodically, the handle allowing precise pouring into the delicate little cups, which, with the milk jug and sugar pot, inevitably made up the coffee set. Some time later, one imagines the top falling off in the kitchen sink, the knob breaking, rendering the service unusable in the eyes of the owner. Stored in the garage, then given to a charity shop. Some years later I came upon it and, grasping the handle and turning it upside down, looked at the maker’s mark to be sure that it was indeed Limoges porcelain.
In 2010, having accumulated a whole series, I took these diversely neo-rococo curiosities in my hand baggage to Delhi and asked the aluminium foundry I had already worked with to make a corresponding series of metal copies. In a symmetrical operation to that previously performed in Limoges, they delicately pressed the black foundry sand around the shapes, and then, putting the originals on one side, poured molten metal into the resulting moulds. The aluminium they used came from scrap gleaned by rag pickers from the streets of the city, a mix of sources. The metal was made homogenous and anonymous by its fusion in the crucible – liquid, it slid into place, filling from the inside the void left by the porcelain originals.
The materials and the process of making changed, but the shapes remained and the handles still handled just the same.
In my installations these pieces are strung up from the shelves, like offerings to some inexistent god of handling, a double homage to dexterity, and a shared sense of touch. Their Now draws a set of threads together, a tale of two cities, of two parallel processes, of two materials into a common form.
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